On Tuesday, the opening night of the Batsheva Young Ensemble’s two-week run at The Joyce Theater, demonstrators gathered outside the venue to protest the performance. On one side of the entrance, an estimated 20 anti-Israel protesters were calling to boycott the show over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people. One the other, 10 or so pro-Israel counter-demonstrators defended Israel’s right to defend itself. Idan Porges, director of the Young Ensemble, Batsheva’s junior company, described the incident as “incredibly sweet.”
“They [the dancers] felt it was a nice example for democracy, and life, and people expressing themselves, the same way we do,” he told The Jewish Week in a phone interview. “This is something the show talks about a little bit, allowing the audience to express themselves.”
Ohad Naharin, Batsheva’s acclaimed choreographer and current artistic director (Naharin has announced he will step down from that role in September), typically keeps his Israel-politics and his dance separate. “I have very clear political views; I’m very clear with where I stand,” he told The Globe And Mail in a recent interview. “It’s not interesting to me to convey those ideas when I choreograph. But, as a byproduct, these ideas sometimes penetrate the work.”
In “Naharin’s Virus,” his 2001 piece that the Young Ensemble is currently performing in the Joyce (through July 22), this seepage is particularly pronounced. Key sections of the work are set to adaptations of traditional Arabic music by Habib Alla Jamal and Chama Khader; the backdrop is a long strip of blackboard, reminiscent of a wall, on which the dancers scrawl the word “PLASTELINA” in huge, elaborate chalk letters. Plastelina, in Hebrew, means “playdough,” and the word is also the title of another of Naharin’s works. But to wider audiences, it would read like a play on the word “Palestina,” the official Hebrew name for Palestine. Other, subtler cultural and political references — a Derwish spin, a hora step, an upside-down triangle (a hint at a Star of David) scrawled over with a red crayon — are suggestively strewn throughout the work.
One could get hung up on that, but Porges said these cultural evocations are not a central theme. Though he said he cannot speak for Naharin, he noted the cultural hints should be viewed as more of a curiosity, a dash of flavor, than a statement. “[The piece] is not saying anything about what is right or wrong. It just gives you the frame, the form, and you fill in your own content.” If anything, this work is more inclined toward “debunking, breaking down” the barriers such symbols represent.
“Virus,” explains Porges, centers on the correlation between Naharin’s choreography and the text of “Offending the Audience,” Peter Handke’s 1966 “anti-play.” In a 1970 interview, the Austrian writer had said that the idea behind his play was “making people aware of the world of the theater … to have the spectators in the orchestra thrown back upon themselves.” It does so by negating, one by one, the distinctions that make up a theatrical experience: actors and audience, plot and reality, onstage and off-stage. “You will see no spectacle. Your curiosity will not be satisfied. You will see no play,” the playwright warns. “We are no representatives. We represent nothing. We are demonstrating nothing.”
In “Naharin’s Virus,” a narrator stands on a elevated platform in a formal “suite” (which later reveals itself to be a cutout, capable of standing on its own) reciting lines from the play, while on stage the dances perform uncorrelated movement sequences. These sequences, sometimes flowing and sometimes highly structured, are the product of Gaga, the movement language developed by Naharin, which draws upon the dancer’s internal physical drives, rather than a set of external instructions. Meanwhile, on the blackboard behind them, dancers continuously add and subtract layers of meaning by scribbling symbols, both meaningful and nonsensical.
“The first time I saw ‘Virus ‘ I was studying theater in high school, reading about Handke, and Dada, and the way they broke down theatrical conventions, making it more about what it really is — a meeting of people in the present moment, under the same roof,” Porges recalled.”There is something about dance that is really about that. This piece is dealing with that — creating a vacuum and injecting the movement into it.”
This will be the first work of such caliber performed by the Young Ensemble. “The company is composed of more inexperienced dancers, and they are only there for up to two, three years — [they] are not staying,” said Porges. Because of this, traditionally the youth group focused on the smaller engagements, “morning performances and school performances, hardly any touring … but over the past few years, they have really grown. They became a mature company.” He attributes this growth to better casting and interpersonal chemistry. Porges himself has only been the ensemble’s director for less than a year.
This will also be the youth group’s last tour during Naharin tenure as Batsheva’s artistic director. “For us, this is a sort of an upgrade. … It will free Ohad from administrative duties and there will be more time for Gaga, choreographing and being with us in the studio.”
The accumulative effect of “Virus” is a sort of hyper-aware sense of unison.
“Here you are not experiencing a time that pretends to be another time. The time onstage is no different the the time offstage,” the narrator points out. “We are in the same location. We are breathing the same air.”
“When we saw the protestors outside, some of the dancers — joking, but not really — said ‘let them come in, let them see what we are doing, let them feel this,’” Porges said. “They would know that really, we come in peace.”